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Sunday, 23 August 2009

A Radical Beauty

Date: 30 September 1995
Publication: A. Magazine
Author: Angelo Ragaza

On the streets of New York, supermodel sightings are a common occurrence. But seeing the paper goddesses in the flesh -- hair dishevelled, duffel bag in tow, hailing a cab to the next booking -- is almost always an anticlimactic experience.

Jenny Shimizu, on the other hand, does not disappoint. The buzz cut, the tattoos, and the killer cheekbones are all accounted for. She looks a little smaller than her pictures, perhaps, but that's a common symptom of ubiquity.

Nevertheless, something is different. Her voice is surprisingly light in pitch, soft, and -- dare I say it? -- feminine. And then, watching her work for the camera, there's another surprise, not that you'd know it from the pictures that are published: Jenny smiles. A lot.

Shimizu's parents, second-generation Japanese Americans, were a little hesitant about her embarking on a modelling career. "My parents were very worried about me going to New York and getting messed up in the drug scene," she recalls, "because they read all these horrible things about models. But it's not like that." Shimizu says they're still a little baffled by her success. "My mother always called me `Funny Face' since I was a little kid," she says. "I think she's still amazed when she sees pictures of me. To her, it's like a freak accident."

By now, Shimizu's "freak accident" is legend. Born in San Jose and raised in the small, central California town of Santa Maria, Shimizu really was a car mechanic. After attending trade school in Los Angeles, she worked as an apprentice at a Harley-Davidson customising shop. One night a stylist spotted her at a club, and she wound up sitting for a picture in Italian Vogue. Soon after that she got a phone call: Calvin Klein was at the Hollywood Bowl, and he wanted to see her. "I ended up riding my Triumph down there," Shimizu recalls, "and Kelly Klein just went crazy over me." The following week, Shimizu was in New York, and the rest is fashion history.

For single-handedly revolutionising the look of Asian womanhood, Shimizu has become a role model for a whole generation of young Asian women. But she never set out, and certainly never engineered her look, to do so. When the fashion world stumbled upon her, the crew cut, the tattoos, and the tool kit were already part of the package. "My walking down the street shatters all types of stereotypes," Shimizu says. "I never thought of submissive Asian women. I never let that stand in my way, because it wasn't a reality. It was a cartoon."

If there were a better way to describe how Shimizu has shattered stereotypes, it would be a line from Hamlet: To thine own self, be true. She has applied the same principle to her sexuality -- Shimizu was out as a lesbian before it became a cool thing for models to do. "I've always been very open about it," she says. "Just by being open about it, people accepted it." (Without naming names, she does have this to say to jackie-come-latelies in the modelling world: "I don't think that going with one girl in your lifetime really means that you're a lesbian.")

Although Shimizu admits that playing the exotic, aloof androgyne has gotten her far as a fashion icon, she's eager to show other facets of her personality. "I don't want to always be cast as the rebel or the bad guy," she says, "I'm trying to make sure people know that there's another side." Shimizu believes she's found a vehicle for that in acting. This year she landed her first film role, as Goldie in the screen adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates's Foxfire, which is slated for 1996 release.

Shimizu says she had little trouble identifying with Goldie, a troubled young Amerasian woman who lives with her abusive father, a Vietnam veteran, and whose unhappiness eventually drives her to drugs. "She feels very alienated," Shimizu says of her character. "She tries to find herself with the help of a few of her friends, and tries to come to terms with the reasons why she has this death wish." After a month of daily coaching, Shimizu felt confident enough to create Goldie' s character on her own. "Because the part was similar to when I was a teenager," she says. "Similar to the developing side of me, the crazy side." So far she's pleased with how the film depicts Goldie' s situation. "They didn't candy-coat anything," Shimizu says. "A lot of teenagers are going to relate to the movie. Not everybody picks the right choice and becomes the homecoming queen."

Shimizu has already lined up her next acting gig, a role in Gregg Araki's next movie, "Nowhere". But for now, she has no intention of leaving the modelling life. "Acting to me is more fulfilling, but modelling is a fun job," she says. "Why stop? I'm having a good time and making money."

Does she have any last words for the interview? "Yeah," she says, her brow suddenly furling. "Will my nipples show on the cover?"

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